updated 7/25/2007 12:48:31 AM ET 2007-07-25T04:48:31

A federal judge, in a ruling critical of New York City police and prosecutors, has granted class action status to thousands of suspected panhandlers arrested or forced off streets over the last 15 years under a law that was declared unconstitutional.

The decision by Judge Shira Scheindlin late today also made defendants of 553 law enforcement agencies in 62 counties throughout New York state in a lawsuit brought on behalf of anyone illegally subjected to the law.

The judge said certifying the class action was the only way to stop the law from continuing to be enforced statewide.

In 1992, another federal judge in Manhattan had ruled that a state law violated the First Amendment when it allowed the arrest of anyone who "loiters, remains or wanders about in a public place for the purpose of begging."

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